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What makes a successful digital twin?

The Centre for Digital Built Britain’s Mark Enzer outlines the importance of establishing an underlying purpose for digital twin projects and getting assets ‘talking’ rather than creating a ‘massive model of everything’.

Though realistic, digital, representations of physical assets are widespread, what distinguishes a digital twin from any other digital model is its connection to a physical asset – or “twin”.

In years to come, it’s hoped that the use of digital twins in tandem with internet of things technology – such as sensors, advanced data analytics, data-driven manufacturing and the digital economy – will enable more accurate and efficient asset construction and management, lower building costs and ultimately facilitate better asset performance over a longer lifespan.

According to Mark Enzer, director of the Centre for Digital Built Britain – a partnership between the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the University of Cambridge – best-in-class digital twins are able to harness the wealth of data being created by digital construction, high performing assets, smart cities, the digital economy and connected citizens.

As such, the Centre for Digital Built Britain seeks to understand how a digital approach to better design, build, operate, and integrate the built environment, fueled by this data, can span and support the likes of the infrastructure, construction and utilities sectors.

“When it comes to a digital twin, it really is just an embodiment of an information value chain,” Enzer told Utility Week WWT’s Smart Water Conference. “It’s a two-way connection between physical and digital. We shouldn’t go building digital twins because they’re fun, or we can, they must have purpose.”

Building a digital twin

Enzer outlined four key phases in the creation of digital twins.

Firstly, he highlighted that a “design” phase revolves around implementing best practice in information management and data gathering techniques in order to create “better-performing” assets and infrastructure.

During a subsequent “build” phase, it’s important to exploit new and emerging digital construction, information, management and manufacturing technologies to improve safety, quality and production during the building process.

When it comes to “operation”, Enzer explained that effective information management is needed to transform the performance of the built environment and the services delivered.

Finally, during the “integrate” phase, understanding how the built environment can improve citizens’ quality of life, and then use information to continually drive design of social and economic infrastructure and services is crucial.

Enabling better decision-making

A central pillar of this work is effective information management throughout building projects, and its placement among people, processes and technology. “Information should be at the heart,” Enzer explained. “It’s all about enabling people to use information to make better decisions, to improve and connect processes, and to apply and integrate technology more wisely.”

Therefore, the fundamental aim of applying digital twins to the built environment should be getting digital assets “talking” rather than simply creating “one massive model of everything”. “That’d be an utter nightmare,” Enzer added.

In essence, national digital twin programmes must be purpose-driven and focused on desired outcomes for a project, rooted in existing systems and guided by strong values.

Guiding principles

Our built environment is a “system of systems” comprising economic, social and natural infrastructure which, if connected together, can aid understanding and facilitate more targeted and effective intervention when needed – especially important for the utilities sector whose assets require intervention and flexibility more than most industries.

Therefore, a central component of successfully harnessing digital twins to achieve cross sector, or industry-wide goals is establishing a common language so that different assets can “speak to each other”, share reference data and establish common data models.

Enzer added that while human and organisational factors present comparable challenges to technical obstacles in rolling out networks of digital twins, Digital Built Britain has implemented the Gemini Principles when joining digital twins together.

The Gemini Principles report was published by the Centre for Digital Built Britain in December 2018 to foster an aligned approach to information management across the built environment – establishing agreed definitions and principles to make it easier to share data.

Enshrined in these values is the notion that all digital twins must have clear purpose, must be trustworthy and must function effectively.

These principles are described as “the conscience of the information management framework and the national digital twin” and seek to ensure that strong founding values and the public good continue to steer digital twin projects.

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